Kaleel Sakakeeny is an ordained Animal Chaplain, credentialed Pet Loss and Bereavement Counselor, and founder of the non-profit Animal Talks (www.animaltalksinc.com).
The relationship between seniors and their animal companions, their pets, carries with it all the joy and love of any human animal bond.
Companionship, comfort, a conduit to socializing and exercise are as characteristic of seniors and their pets, as they are of most anyone who shares her life with an animal companion.
In fact, an article in Forbes ( “Pets Are Critical For Older Adults,” January, 2020) points out that companionship with an animal very often is the only thing separating seniors from devastating isolation and loneliness. Pets provide the affection, purpose, and unconditional love that makes life worth living for seniors. Aging in Place (July 2020) reaffirms that “owning” (people do not ”own” pets, by the way!) a pet is physically and mentally beneficial for senior citizens.
Apparently just 15 minutes bonding with an animal sets off a chemical chain reaction in the brain, lowering levels of the fight-or-flight hormone, cortisol, and increasing production of the feel-good hormone serotonin. The result: heart rate, blood pressure and stress levels immediately drop. Over the long term, the article claims, pet and human interactions can lower cholesterol levels and fight depression.
But pets die all too soon, and the grief at the loss can be bone-marrow deep. Devastating.
Although I’m a firm believer that seniors benefit greatly at any age when they share their lives with an animal companion, the older a senior, the greater the potential for complications when her beloved pet passes.
At 60, a woman is likely to still have a circle of friends and an active social life. But for many older seniors who may have lost most everything and everyone, the death of their pet is the death of her lifeline, and the loss can be crushing. A final blow, bringing on depression and actual illness.
Of course all of this depends on the woman, regardless of her age. Is she a person of faith? An introvert or extrovert? How much prior loss and grief has she experienced?
Still, in my opinion, the overall benefits of pet companionship – any pet – outweigh the pain of loss at whatever age.
If appropriate plans and precautions are in place relative to who will care for the pet when necessary; a support system available, and discussion about the pet’s end of life have taken place, the transition from a relationship to a living being to one of memory is possible. Is necessary. But it’s significantly more difficult with seniors.
The single most important indication of recovery from death, a pet’s or a human’s, is the existence of someone to talk with. Preferably someone who has known and loved the pet, and who has had life losses, specifically animal companion losses, in her life.
Pet Grief Counseling for Seniors
In my work as a grief counselor, I see the devastation and pain that come when a beloved animal dies, especially by euthanasia, which is more often the case.
But I don’t do much counseling! Mostly I listen because the person is the expert in her own grief. As her story unfolds, I listen for guilt which is pretty much always there, and try to separate the guilt from the grief, so we can get on with the process of healing.
It helps seniors to grasp that the death does not end the love. It does not end the relationship. The love and the relationship are forever, and that can be comforting.
It’s helpful for seniors or, again, anyone of any age, to know deeply that we only feel pain because we have loved. Love and grief are conjoined!
Another helpful step in working with seniors and here, again, anyone who has loved and lost a pet, is creating a ritual, a ceremony to honor their pet’s life. Rituals are critical to healing. They externalize the pain, and give our minds and hearts a way to catch up with our feelings and get past the helplessness. Maybe a small shrine where photographs are set up and a candle is lighted, maybe friends come by to sing songs or share memories. Recite a poem in the pet’s honor. We acknowledge and never minimize the intense yearning to see and hold our pet again. And simultaneously, I encourage the full expression of grief and tears for as long as it takes.
The best way to go through grief is by grieving fully. By not denying or running away from the pain and sadness, but moving toward them to get through them. There can be relief and comfort in knowing there is no timetable for grief to end. It never does.
It softens and we regain hope and the capacity to love again. Never listen to anyone who says you’ve grieved enough, and it’s time “ to move on” Grief is never ending. There will always be a hole in your heart. But we move forward, not “move on.”
Keeping Seniors and Pets Together
The program I envision, to help keep seniors and their beloved pets together, is based on a paid-volunteer system, where high school and college students earn credits and a stipend by volunteering to help seniors with their pet needs.
For many seniors, getting to the store to buy pet food is physically and emotionally challenging. And even if bags and cans of food and litter are delivered, hefting 5 to 7-pound bags of cat litter to change a litter box can be all but impossible for many seniors.
Walking a dog is absolutely critical to a dog’s health and well-being. They are social creatures who want to play and meet other dogs and explore the world with their extraordinarily sensitive noses. If they don’t, dogs can quickly fall into depression and ill health.
Animal Talks (animaltalksinc.com) believes there is a perfect match for young volunteers and seniors emotionally and socially. They can learn a great deal from each other, gaining wisdom, compassion and fulfillment through the interaction.
And when the volunteers show up to help with pet care and support, the chances of seniors being able to keep their beloved pets with them at home, are increased considerably – resulting in healthier, happier pets, seniors and volunteers. Compare this outcome to a senior having to send her dog or cat or bird to a shelter and experiencing the depths of loneliness and grief. The program is such a win-win-win proposition, it’s a wonder it hasn’t been tried yet.
I have asked, informally, how likely senior centers would respond to this program. After checking in with centers like Sophia Snow in Boston, and others, there was complete agreement that this kind of program would be hugely beneficial. Of course there are obstacles to overcome, logistics to work out and Covid-19 issues to work around. But with the right funding and program structure, it’s a beautiful possibility.
Animal Talks is a nonprofit, animal charity. They rely exclusively on donations for the services they provide to hurting people around the world. You can learn more and make a tax-deductable donation at animaltalksinc.com, and you can buy Rev K’s new ebook at animaltalksinc.com/ebooks